Streetcars are not the solution to every transportation problem, but they do have their role. In particular, they move people within a neighborhood, from one neighborhood to an adjacent one, and connect to rapid transit. Although buses fill this role too, they don’t support as many riders on a route because of rail bias, branding, capacity issues, and a slow and rough ride. So while I fully support Seattle Subway‘s push for a high quality rapid rail network throughout our city, I also think we need the Transit Master Plan’s (TMP) streetcar network.
In fact, I don’t think the TMP goes far enough. There are other corridors worthy of study. One is along Rainier Avenue South. The corridor has good land use (for neighborhoods outside the core), high transit ridership, and is rapidly developing, but it was only tapped for some bus improvements in the Transit Master Plan and largly ignored in the Bicycle Master Plan. The standard attributes of a streetcar would fix many of the problems with existing service and such a project would serve as a catalyst for a series of transportation enhancements.
As the map illustrates, the line would connect to the First Hill Streetcar tracks at Rainier Avenue and Jackson and run south to S Othello Street, turn west and terminate outside the Othello Link Station. The remainder of the 7’s current route could be serviced by a trolleybus tail (see Bruce’s Better 7 post). Operationally, it could be run as two interlined routes that split at Jackson; the old 7 going to Downtown (and beyond?) and the old 9 going up First Hill and then Capitol Hill. Such connections would further realize the original purpose of the First Hill Streetcar: as a substitute for a lost Link stop. For those on First Hill or in the Central District wanting to head east or south on Link, there would be no need to backtrack to IDS. Instead, there would be easy connections to East Link at I-90 or Central Link at Mt. Baker Station. Riders would experience the speed and comfort benefits that come with a streetcar and the increased mobility that comes with connections to 5 Link Stations (Othello, Mt. Baker, I90/Rainier and either Capitol Hill or International District Station).
Find out why else it’s a good idea below the fold.
Thanks to its past as a historic streetcar route (actually predating the road), Rainier Avenue S runs through moderate density most of its length. With decent land use and the demographics of the area, route 7 is well used throughout the day (a top 25% core route). Anecdotally, it is not always packed but it is never empty. Even the 9EX, with its limited schedule, performs well.
However, the 7 is not fast. Many of the same riders that that make the route popular often slow it to a crawl. Cash payment (ORCA adoption is below 50%), use of the wheelchair lift, and non-commute trips with a week’s worth of shopping are all common. Combine those factors with high ridership and close stop spacing and it all adds up to a slow and frustrating trip. According to Google Transit, it takes 17 minutes to get from Rainier and Othello to Mount Baker Station (midday, with no traffic and no delays) compared to just 7 minutes driving or 7 minutes for Link to travel a similar distance.
The wider stop spacing, offboard fare payment, level boardings, and Transit Signal Priority (TSP) that generally come with a streetcar would solve most, if not all, of the above problems, improving the speed and reliability of trips through the corridor. Unlike in South Lake Union, traffic is rarely stop and go and the there are only a few intersections where Transit Signal Priority implementation could be a challenge.
Then there is the race and social justice aspect. So far all of Seattle’s potential streetcar routes are in Downtown and North Seattle. Putting a line down Rainier would go far to dispel the myth that streetcars are just for white people.
And finally, the more extensive our streetcar network, the more control Seattle has over our transit system.
A streetcar on Rainier is not as radical an idea as you might think. In 2008 SDOT looked at an extension of the FHSC down Rainier past the Rainier/I90 Freeway Station and terminating at Mount Baker Station when preparing the Seattle Streetcar Network Plan. “No significant technical or operational flaws were identified” from Jackson to McClellan. At the time it was dropped from further study due to projected low ridership. However SDOT was only looking at ridership on the segment from Mount Baker Station to International District Station. With such a short extension and narrow scope they concluded that Central Link and the now (mostly dead) Central Line Streetcar would serve more potential riders.
The rails themselves could be only the beginning. Rainier is literally a highway, and there are no safe, flat north-south bicycle routes in the Southeast. Do a rechannelization, add cycletracks and pedestrian amenities as is being done on Broadway for the First Hill Streetcar, and turn Rainier into a street much more comfortable to walk and bike along. Consider how pleasant it is to walk around Columbia City. There are places all along Rainier with the bones to be great walkable areas: they just need infrastructure investments. Assuming similar costs to the Broadway makeover ($53.6 million per mile), the entire project would cost around $284 million.
Streetcars have a mixed reputation in the transit community. However, like every other mode they have their place. Traffic within and between neighborhoods, and connections to rapid transit, are critical roles for transit in the Rainier Valley and roles well suited for streetcars. Crucially, the worst things about the 7 are the things that a change of mode are likely to fix. Additionally, streetcars have a proven track record of spurring development and attracting choice riders, and have long coattails that other street/neighborhood improvements ride in on. For all those reasons I think that Seattle needs more lines than the Transit Master Plan suggests, not fewer. Rainier Avenue S deserves a longer look.